A Review of “The Desert War 1940-43” by Dan Mersey

A Wargamer’s Guide to The Desert War 1940-1943
Daniel Mersey
Pen & Sword Military 2017
ISBN: 9781473851085

This title is one of the latest offerings from this excellent series of books which are intended to be a low-cost general introduction for existing wargamers to take up a new historical period for their gaming in what I can best describe as the spiritual successor of the Airfix guides from the 70s.

As anyone who’s read any of Dan’s many rulesets or articles will know, his style is light and to the point which makes it ideal for a series such as this with a lot to pack into a small volume.   As with the rest of the series, this title is a fairly small format softback, containing approximately 120 pages of fairly large type with no illustrations but a centre spread of eight pages of full colour photographs on glossy paper.  As there’s no primer on what wargaming is, books in this series wouldn’t be particularly suited for somebody looking to get into the hobby for the first time.  The books are priced at UK £12.99 / US $ 16.95 each and I picked my copy up from Mighty Ape for $19.99 but I notice it’s also available from Amazon.com.au and doubtless many other booksellers.

On to this title specifically:

The short introduction qualifies the theatre, defines some terminology and sets the tone that this is very much going to be a guide for gamer’s rather than a work of military history.

Chapter 1: The Desert War (13 pages) – provides a brisk and entertaining summary of the desert war campaigns 1940-43.  I only had some vague notions of the key protagonists and operations so this was a useful starting point to give a flavour of the campaigns without getting bogged down in the minutia.

Chapter 2: Armies, Organisation & Equipment (20 pages) – gives a very brief and high level look at organisations of British, German, Italian and US forces followed by eight pages of tabular data on tanks, infantry weapons and other hardware which I thought were of limited use as most sets of rules will already include this kind of information.  The remainder of the chapter is a very useful starter guide to painting desert war infantry and vehicles, including Vallejo colour references and vehicle markings.

Chapter 3: Wargaming the Campaign (37 pages) – this is the real ‘meat’ of the book and while it doesn’t contain a set of rules, it discusses at length the factors which define the war in the desert and how they might be represented on the tabletop if your chosen rules do not reflect them to your satisfaction.  Through this chapter, hobby luminaries such as Donald Featherstone, Brice Quarry and Paddy Griffith are quoted extensively.  The topics covered are Combined Arms, Terrain & Climate, Line of Sight, Tank Tactics, Tank and Anti-Tank Guns, Infantry Tactics, Supply Lines, Leadership and Morale, Prepared Defences and Minefields, Aerial Support and Special Forces and Recon Units.  There articles are well worth the (modest) price of the book on their own.

Photo Section (8 pages) – contains two or three full-colour photos per page and tends on focus on diorama style painted tanks in 6mm, 15mm and 28mm with a slight skew to the rather photogenic Perry range.  There are only a couple of photos of actual games in progress which I think is a slight shame but doesn’t really detract from the overall effect which is to inspire you to get some models on the table.

Chapter 4: Choosing Your Rules (19 pages) – opens with the assertion that there really are a very great number of WWII wargames rules on the market and then continues by defining the various levels of game represented the various rulesets available.  A total of 12 rules are discussed, with a focus on command and control mechanics.  The market leaders are represented as such (along the drawbacks of their ‘bathtubbing’ approach) along with a healthy mix of slightly less popular but established rulesets and a couple of curved balls of more obscure (and generally free) sets which introduce interesting concepts.  The author seems to favour Blitzkreig Commander but doesn’t let that set dominate the chapter.  It’s unfortunate that the publication date meant that the recently released Rommel rules from Sam Mustafa couldn’t be included as this set would appear to be ideally suited to represent the desert war at a divisional or corps level.  Naturally everyone will have their favourite set(s) and feel aggrieved if they are omitted, but I feel this is an excellent overview of what’s out there.

Chapter 5: Choosing Your Models (12 pages) – discusses figure sizes and vehicle scales before listing some of the major manufactures divided by scale (9 for 28mm , 15 for 20mm, 7 for 15mm, 5 for 10mm/12mm and 5 for 6mm).  2mm figures are mentioned in passing but no manufacturers are listed, which is probably a slight oversight.  Given the number of manufacturers included, contact details aren’t provided and there is only a very brief description of the extent of each range and any major compatibility issues with other ranges but generally don’t discuss casting quality, pricing or service.  Again, there will be many manufacturers omitted but unlike the last chapter, if I didn’t have any familiarity with the manufacturers, I wouldn’t necessarily feel much closer to knowing where to start.

Chapter 6: Scenarios (11 pages) – four scenarios are provided and these are generic situations rather than specific historical encounters and each has an introduction,  setup information, victory conditions and rules considerations.  No force lists are included so they could potential scale from skirmishes to large battles.  The four scenarios are Keep on Running, Into the Valley of Death, Hit the Convoy and Deep into Enemy Territory.

Appendix: Further Reading (3 pages) – the final pages of the book contain suggested further reading and includes a lot of wargames titles and Osprey books.  The military history books where are included are those expected to be most useful to the tabletop gamer so focus on equipment and tactics rather than memoirs or politics.

Overall I felt this book gave an excellent introduction into a new (to me) period and came at the perfect time as I’ve recently been discussing the possibility of playing the early desert war using I Ain’t Been Shot Mum.  You’ll get less from the book if you’re a well established desert warfare gamer but many of the ideas will still be relevant and useful so I would encourage you to pick it up.


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